By Nikita Chinamanthur
Cinema in the subcontinent started off with a bang and a dash of royalty with Dadasaheb Phalke’s silent film, Raja Harishchandra, in 1913. Two decades later, the first “talkie” or sound film was released in the subcontinent: Alam Ara (1931). Ever since, movies from the subcontinent’s vast and varied film industries have married the visual with the audio in exciting, creative ways. Imitating Hollywood musicals, Hindi films took it to the next level with dream sequences, intricate classical music compositions—singers had to record live and in one take!—and horrible choreography from the 1980s aside, beautiful dancing. South Asian films integrated music and movie, essentially redefining the medium to suit subcontinental sensibilities. I grew up listening to some of these songs because my mum adores old Hindi music. This list of ten musical numbers from the last ninety years or so of “talkie” films, starting in pre-Partition South Asia and ending in the 2010s (since I would hate to classify the entire decade with songs from 2020).
Fellow Aries and South Asia’s first superstar singer and actor, K.L. Saigal, sang two songs for this classic remake of Devdas, the second in a long, never-ending stream of adaptations of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Bengali novel, Devdas. “Dukh Ke Ab Din,” which loosely translates to “Days of Sadness,” features a gloriously lipsticked Pramathesh Barua lip-syncing. This genre of music would most aptly be classified as ghazal, at least in my not-so-expert opinion.
Mirza Sahiban is based on the Punjabi tragic romance Mirza-Sahiba which is similar to Heer-Ranjha and Laila-Majnu. This song features Noor Jehan, Malika-e-Tarannum or the Queen of Melody, as Sahiba. The film was released pre-Partition and was well-received, highlighting the importance of art in times of strife and uncertainty. Loosely translated by yours truly, “Chand Mere Aja” means “Come Hither Moon.” I’m not going to lie, this song is a bop, and Noor Jehan was a beautiful human being. They are also playing duck-duck-goose in this song, so that’s something!
Since this article was inspired by mum’s love for old Hindi songs, I couldn’t resist adding this classic from Baazi. My mum loves Dev Anand to no end, mainly because my grandfather resembles him quite a bit. While the song features Anand and Geeta Bali, Kalpana Karthik, Anand’s future and only wife of 57 years, also stars in the film! I, for one, appreciate some celebrity monogamy, thank you very much. Another famous song from the film is “Babuji Dheere Chalna.”
Now, as we enter the sixties, the songs are a lot more fun and funny. Starring Kishore Kumar and his then-wife Madhubala (so! cute!), Half Ticket is about a young man who runs away from his wealthy father’s house and accidentally smuggles diamonds. In the song, you’ll see the protagonist try to disguise himself from the diamond smuggler. When I first watched this song, I was struck by so many things but in particular: the legendary, iconic, larger-than-life Kishore Kumar switching between a “man” and a “woman” using falsetto. There is only one singer here, folx, and it is Kishore-da. Plus, there’s wholesome, non-judgemental cross-dressing! If you’ve never seen Pran in a comedic role or any films from the 1960s, Half Ticket is not a bad place to start.
A better place to start watching Hindi movies from the 1960s, in my humble opinion, would be 1968’s Padosan. The film stars Sunil Dutt (Sanjay Dutt’s father) and Saira Banu, with Kishore Kumar and Mehmood in pivotal, comedic roles. The songs are absolutely classic, and “Ek Chatur Naar” or “A Clever/Cunning/Smart Woman” is one of my favorites. Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar perform a qawwali-style duet, with dueling voices. Dey deftly sings for Mehmood in a recognizably South Indian accent while Kumar eggs him on by changing the key and interrupting him. I recognize Mehmood plays the “Madrasi/South Indian” trope in this film; as a South Indian, I hate when this trope is used today. Today, Padosan is a film to view with a grain of salt; Banu is constantly made fun of for being an airhead, and Kishore also plays the “Bengali babu” stereotype.
6. “Sa Re Ga Ma” from Chupke Chupke (1975)
With an ensemble star-studded cast, Chupke Chupke is a film about a newly-married man who concocts an elaborate prank on his brother-in-law. The film was released in April, and Sholay (1975) released later that year. Considering how fantastic Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan’s chemistry is in this film, it is still incredible that they had two back to back blockbusters of two entirely different genres. This song is another example of Kumar’s chemistry with his fellow singer, Mohammed Rafi; if you want to listen to the entire song, here it is! Otherwise, the lovely scene between the actors is just as fun. Another bonus from this hilarious film is this scene if you are a Hindi speaker or comprehender. If you have the time, definitely check out Gol Maal (1979), another classic from the 1970s.
Shaan is the ultimate Bollywood pseudo-spy movie in so many ways, reminiscent of an off-brand 007. The film is kitschy, glitzy, star-studded, and has tons of songs embedded unnecessarily in the script. “Yamma Yamma” (this means nothing, I swear, it just rhymes) is one of the evergreen Mohammed Rafi’s last songs, and it’s a rare duet with RD Burman. Rafi passed away shortly after recording this unofficial take, and Burman included it in the film’s final cut. Shaan is another Salim-Javed (Salman Khan’s and Farhan Akhtar’s father, respectively) film, hot on Sholay’s heels.
Never watch this film. Never. You have no reason to in 2020. I’m not even going to link it to this article. Joint shaadis are overrated and highly unnecessary (don’t get married because you’re being pressured!). If you are not deterred by the run time or inundation of songs, Alok Nath is an abusive alcoholic person on and off-set. Just saying. Additionally, Salman Khan, who allegedly drove over a group of people sleeping on the pavement, is driving a bus in this song. A bus. However, this song will get stuck in your head and, ever since Kanan Gill and Biswa Kalyan Rath featured it in their highly entertaining “Pretentious Movie Review” series, it has only gained more views.
Phir Hera Pheri is the sequel to the cult classic from 2001, Hera Pheri. Phir means again, so the sequel does everything in its power to recreate the heart and soul of the first film. The sequel is madcap it doesn’t have a real plot, just a set of far-too-long skits and gags. Moreover, the songs from both films are generally just… bad. But, “Ay Meri Zohrajabee” is the funniest. It ends the film and is absolutely inconsequential. This song is on this list because if I added any of the other insane numbers I enjoyed as a child growing up in India, I would expose the misogyny I internalized during my formative years. And, that’s on that! I also wanted to feature a lesser remembered song and film; choosing Dil Chahta Hai (2001) or Main Hoon Na (2004) or Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) would be too easy to appeal to NRI sentiments, in my opinion.
Maybe watch this film or avoid it at all costs even though it’s free on YouTube. It’s terrible, sexist, and full of weird tropes. It is the worst Back to the Future (1985) rip off, and I adore that series. But, watch it for a young, poor-performing Aditya Roy Kapur (who definitely profiteered off of nepotism after this film; now, not so much. He can stand his ground. I think it has a lot to do with his hair). Watch for one of Akshay Kumar’s last funny genre films. Watch for Aishwarya Rai looking cute but acting like the worst person in the world. And, this one anti-marriage anthem. Oh! And that song battle where a character sings in two voices — why? Two days in jail. I’m not kidding, they imply carceral sexual assault. So, I guess let’s avoid this movie completely but enjoy the song!